endless summer


Summer's possibilities are endless.

I dread Chennai summers, so I'm always on my guard. Sometime in early March I can't help but notice the feeling of overwhelming warmth creeping up behind me. Moments later, my neck is glistening with sweat that has traveled down and inside my shirt – sweat cooling even the warm breeze that sets in late in the evening.

Mornings are worse. I can't seem to toast a slice of sourdough bread in the kitchen without exclaiming "it's really hot!" at least eleven times during the process, while wiping my brow, my neck, my face, and my back – and not in that order every time. My parents are sick of hearing me complain and pretend otherwise. The season sucks my energy in small bouts, resulting in my frequent collapse in the room next to our kitchen for short breaks. It is 11.30 am before I sit down to eat my first meal of the day. Half an hour later, we set off to the local market for vegetables and idle talk, and came back with tomatoes, potatoes, curry leaves, and secrets.

But despite my constant whining about the heat, the thought of the sun fortifies me – the possibilities of its warmth seem endless, foremost in food. Instant thoughts include cool cucumbers, juicy red watermelons, luxurious mangoes (duh!), sweet limes, ICE CREAMS, perhaps iced coffee to start my mornings with. Amber-hued evening sun compels me to take a walk around my neighborhood, ending at my local bakery to savor a hot veggie puff with a crackly golden crust – the type that provides satisfying ASMR when you scratch it with a knife – a fluffy bun filled with cloying and copious vanilla cream, and spongy cakes smeared with thick chocolate icing.

Golden afternoons indicate that the time is ripe for juicing சாத்துக்குடி (sweet lime); peels scattered everywhere, its fragrance sending signals. On persimmon mornings, I'm tempted to cut into a mango and drink its juices, saving the luminous pulp for later. Coffee after, black and iced. Sometimes laziness overtakes and I settle for whatever ice cream is in the freezer, for breakfast, announcing to no one in particular that "it's summer, anything goes!" – a maxim that I repeat in winter* when I slather my paratha with chunks of butter.

My mother and I have a plan – pickling green mango in oil and spices, a year's worth of condiment ready in a moment's notice. Planning in the present to make comforting future meals, which is eerily similar to preservation itself. Both the act of making a pickle and the pickle itself are the same thing. Once we mix everything together, we stand and admire its brilliance: its blood-rich color, and striking hot flavor akin to the scorching sun. For lunch the next day there's mor kuzhambu, a cousin to the kadhi, sour soup (sauce? gravy? curry?) with fried okra floating gently and served hot with rice, but cold with sevai (a type of rice noodles). The mango pickle isn't ready yet.

In between meals, I allow myself the luxury of sipping tender coconuts and passing on the வழுக்கை / malai to my father (note: vazhukkai refers to the white flesh of the tender coconut, but it can also refer to baldness) and rolling the used coconut along the kitchen floor till it knocks on the dustbin, disclosing a sharp thud. Soon it is time for a snack of reserved mangoes, from the morning, contained in its juices which flood the container it's stored in. There is no discipline involved in eating a mango and therein lies the utmost pleasure. You don't have to be devout to worship at its altar – just quiet smacking, a prayer forming on your lips.

Each year I dread summer when it approaches, but light informs me of the myriad occasions for eating, pickling, and preserving. The promise of future meals is not just the preservation of summer, but preserving in summer does indicate the potential of future meals. Light also transforms me. And then I find myself anticipating warmth in the gloominess of the monsoon, assuring myself and my immediate universe of the abundance of light and joy that lies ahead.

*winter - there is no winter in Chennai, a city that steadily maintains temperatures above 30°C all year round, although December is cooler.
சாத்துக்குடி (pr. sa-thuh-ku-dee) - sweet lime
வழுக்கை (pr. va-zhuk-kuy) - the white flesh/meat of the tender coconut
mor kuzhambu (pr. more ku-zham-boo) - a curry/sauce made with yogurt  (the ‘zh’ sound in Tamil is achieved by doing tongue gymnastics)

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